Neeraj Chopra is an amiable interviewee, and to an almost disorienting degree, his vibe is normal. Talking to him is like conversing with a former college classmate you didn’t know well but always thought fondly of.
“I’ve gone through all phases; even travelled in general compartments of trains for Nationals,” Neeraj says, bounce in his ﬂoppy hair and veins popping in his arms. It is late March, and the Olympic gold medallist is speaking on a smoggy Sunday morning at The Chambers of The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, telling Sportstar how, despite being exposed to fame, wealth, and success, he remains relatively untouched by the historic triumph on August 7, 2021.
“I am not too bothered about these things. I come from a simple family,” Neeraj says. Moments before the interview, he steals a glance outside the hotel, where the Sunday crowd thronged the seafront alongside the Gateway of India. "Oh teri, itni bheed (That’s a lot of people),” he says with genuine disbelief. The reaction, though ﬂeeting, is almost strange for a man who has been mobbed in every public appearance since the heroics of Tokyo.
Neeraj can almost disappear, as both an athlete and a public ﬁgure. He is the nice fella, who could live next door. He is talking about how he still loves the casual stroll and hangs out with his friends like any 24-year-old. “Main toh ji nikal padta hun cap aur mask laga ke jab bhi mann karta hai. Mera kuch aisa nahi hai ki ‘arey bahar kitni garmi hai abhi nahi jaenge’ (I just step out wearing a cap, and mask. I never think that I won’t go out because it’s too hot outside),” he says with his nimble voice — sometimes high and ﬂuttery, other times earthy and low.
WATCH THE NEERAJ CHOPRA INTERVIEW IN FULL HERE
Neeraj is in Mumbai to receive the ‘Sportstar of the Year (Male)’ award at the 2022 Sportstar Aces Awards. He created history by becoming the ﬁrst Indian to win an athletics gold medal at the Olympics by winning the men’s javelin throw at Tokyo 2020 with a best throw of 87.58m. And now there’s a Neeraj gold rush on, with companies scrambling to sign him for sponsorship deals. But he is a man beyond just his on-track feats and oﬀ-ﬁeld glitz.
He ﬂits between both these worlds as seamlessly as his approach run. We all have them: sporting icons whose everyday persona resonates with us. The night of the awards, Neeraj had daal, rice, and salad for dinner. “When you come to a hotel, you’ve plenty of food options in front of you. But as athletes, we’ve to keep a check on what we eat. So, I had a light dinner last night and a light breakfast today after a gym session.” Neeraj is travelling a lot now, so irrespective of the country he travels to, he usually ﬁnds something in the local cuisine he enjoys eating. But when he ﬁrst travelled out of India, he used to look around for Indian restaurants to ﬁnd something to eat.
“Now I eat whatever I get. For instance, when I went to the United States of America (USA) this time, we visited an Indian restaurant just once. Pehle toh bas roti, sabzi dhunda karte the. Ab waisa nahi hai. (Earlier it used to be roti, daal, sabzi. Now it’s not like that) “On event days, I eat more carbs because we need more energy. I’ve been working with a dietician. But it’s hard to get rid of our Haryanvi style (laughs)... kabhi kabhi lagta hai yeh bhi kha lo, woh bhi kha lo(Sometimes you feel let’s eat this, let’s eat that). After returning from Tokyo, I was eating anything and everything, but once training began, I automatically gained control over my diet.”
Neeraj, the contemporary athlete, feels connected, almost umbilically to his roots. But he relishes the modern indulgences just as much. He has come for the interview wearing a Steph Curry — Golden State Warriors point guard — Tshirt and sporting red sports shoes. He “loves” basketball shoes. When he is not training or competing, Neeraj likes to play volleyball. “Helps with the reﬂexes?” we ask. “That’s not why I play it. It’s just a lot of fun. Playing with friends,” he replies.
Today, one of India’s most sought-after sports stars follows his love for photography when he wants to “switch oﬀ” from the stress. He gives a glimpse of his passion when, before browsing through diﬀerent pictures of his, he enquires about the model of the camera ﬁrst and has a feel for it. Armed with his DSLR camera and an Instagram account with over 5 million followers, Neeraj turns to photography, especially when he is overseas. “I enjoy clicking pictures, shopping, riding bikes. But when I am abroad, it’s not always easy to go on rides, so I either engage in photography or watch movies with high IMDB ratings. The last ﬁlm I saw in Patiala was a James Bond thriller.”
The conversation veers towards Indian athletics, and Neeraj listens attentively. He says Indian athletics is in good health and foresees a rich medal haul in the upcoming international events. “DP Manu (82.43m) and Rohit Yadav (80.03m) have crossed the 80m-mark at Indian Grand Prix. Even Sahil (Silwal) has touched 80m. Junior athletes crossing the 80m barrier is a good sign,” he says. “Not just javelin throw, athletes in other disciplines are excelling as well. M. Sreeshankar and Shaili Singh have put on impressive performances in the long jump. Indian athletics is on the rise. Hopefully, there will be a medal glut at Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. I hope such events are held in India so that international athletes come here, and youngsters watch them and ﬁnd out more about diﬀerent sports.”
Aﬀable and polite, Neeraj realises the medals, the spotlight, and the fame have given him a platform from where his words and action can eﬀect change. “August 7 will be celebrated as National Javelin Day by the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). That’s a huge honour for me. Hopefully, the same will be extended to other events as well so that we have talent coming out of everywhere. I will speak to other sports federations, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the government to see if we can hold events where top German thrower Johannes Vetter comes here and I also compete so that people ﬁnd out more about javelin throw, who are the athletes and how we prepare. I think that will be hugely beneﬁcial.” Neeraj has a packed schedule with three big events coming up — the World Athletics Championships (July), the Commonwealth Games (July-August) and the Asian Games (September). Currently, it is athletics oﬀ-season, but Neeraj’s training is underway in SAI, Patiala. It has taken him close to three months to regain his physical ﬁtness. He will now work on regaining his speed along with “perfecting some new javelin techniques. It’s a slow process, but I will begin focussed training soon.”
RELATED| Sportstar Aces 2022: A starry affair
The relationship between Neeraj and his fans is pure, in that it is unsullied by market forces. Neeraj would probably be the last in the line of people who want to maintain privacy. He is always inviting everybody into his life. “Selﬁe after breakfast?” Sure. “An autograph immediately after getting down from the car?” No sweat. “Can you record a video message wishing my wife happy birthday?” Absolutely, give me the phone, I'll record it myself. He soaks up all the attention with a smile — dipping in and out of hotel lobbies with a dash of bravado. Asked if he ever turns down requests from fans, Neeraj says with a smile: “Kabhi, Kabhi zaroori hai (Sometimes it’s necessary). I never compromise on my training. And people also understand that I need my space before a competition. If it’s oﬀ-season, I have no problems entertaining the fans, none whatsoever.”
It's time for Neeraj to leave. He waits patiently for his car to arrive. As it pulls up on the front entrance of The Taj Mahal Palace, he shakes hands with everyone who is there to see him oﬀ. But just as he is leaning back in his seat, he realises he hasn’t shaken hands with one person still waiting. He promptly obliges and says, “Thank You” with a broad smile, the kind that makes you feel you have known a stranger your whole life. Olympic gold-medallist Neeraj Chopra is on a joy ride, and he wants you to tag along. Bon, voyage!